Despite the trend towards clickbait and appealing to readers’ shorter attention spans, there’s proof that quality investigative journalism isn’t dead. Several newspapers have recently turned out long, compelling series that have captured readers’ attention in a dramatic way: The New York Times’ “Unvarnished” exposé of nail salons reached nearly 5 million readers; in Manitoba, Canada, the Brandon Sun’s “Breaking Faith” championed the case of a man who died of asbestosis and whose widow was denied death benefits; and the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. won a Pulitzer Prize last year for its series about domestic abuse, “Till Death Do Us Part.”
E&P talked to these newspapers about the art of crafting a long-form article in a digital world and how they leveraged different newsroom departments to help these articles find—and keep—their audience, as well as attract new readers.
Months of research
Long-form, multiplatform journalism requires an investment of months, a challenge for smaller papers like the Brandon Sun. “For a small newsroom with limited resources, making these kinds of long-form journalistic pieces can be a little tricky,” said managing editor Matt Goerzen, who juggled his managerial duties with writing and researching his “Breaking Faith” series, the paper’s first of its kind.
Goerzen had first written about his subject, asbestosis sufferer Henry Lawrence, in 2007, when Goerzen was still a beat reporter for the paper.
“Over the years as I moved from reporter to management, I kept tabs on how Henry was doing and updated the story for readers as the years past,” he said. “When I heard that he had died last December, and that his widow had been denied death benefits, I decided then and there that I wanted to write something more in-depth than I had previously.” The research for the series took about six months and the actual writing about a month.
On the other end of the spectrum, the New York Times has a dedicated investigations department and a large staff that creates several series each year.
“The nail salon series is just one of several big investigative projects that we ran this year,” said Michael Luo, deputy editor overseeing investigations. “Another notable one that wasn’t investigative, but that took more than year in the making was by N. R. Kleinfield. He wrote the story about George Bell, about a guy who died alone in his apartment. That was a 7,000 word story and it was a huge viral phenomenon too.”
Their investigative series on the nail industry by Sarah Maslin Nir took 13 months to come together. As Maslin Nir noted, she waited nine months just to get data from the New York State Labor Department.
Mitch Pugh, executive editor of the Post and Courier, said of “Till Death Do Us Part,” “The entire project took roughly eight to 10 months. We were exploring the topic, doing some pre-reporting as much as 10 months before publication.”
Gathering the team
“There’s a lot of people,” Luo said of how many staffers contributed to the Times’ nail salon exposé. “I would say dozens. I was the main editor on the project and Elisabeth (Goodridge) is our digital deputy for Metro, so she was involved.”
“A lot of people touched this thing,” Goodridge added. “It was a huge project and we understood that months ago so that we lined up the correct staff.” In addition to editors, the piece had input from social media, graphics, video, photographers and translators.
The Post and Courier’s Pugh said, “The key to any long-form project is to give readers multiple ways to engage and interact with the content. By dedicating a photographer, videographer and interactive editor to this project early on, there was deep buy-in across departments. Each member of our team was a talented journalist using all the skills in their toolbox to help us tell this story effectively.”
Using the right resources
Pugh said, “The critical component to ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ was the database, which we created from scratch with assistance and training generously provided by The Center for Investigative Reporting. We were doing reporting all along the way, but once we had the data analysis completed, the story really took shape. It was critically important that this project not rely on anecdotal evidence; we had to definitely prove every point we made in the series. Each assertion and finding is linked either to our database or studies/reports from other sources.” He added proudly, “Despite the mountain of data combed and sorted through to produce this project, we’ve not run one correction.”
For the Brandon Sun, Goerzen said that the right developer was vital for their very first long-form series. “The hiring of a code-savvy developer, Andrew Nguyen, last year has made it possible now to build this kind of project ourselves. But we’ve found that in our newsroom it really does take the combined effort of our staff to give those working on a project the time to do it right.”
His staff also relies on Slack, the team-collaboration tool, to keep everyone—including editors, photographers and reporters—up to date on the project’s status.
Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir had to find interpreters who spoke Korean, Chinese and Spanish, the main languages of the city’s many manicurists.
“She was almost operating her own foreign bureau,” Luo said.
The advantages of long-form online
The Times nail salon expose was available on the site in four languages, a first for the paper, Goodridge said. That’s something that wasn’t possible in print, where the story ran only in English.
Another benefit of unlimited digital space: The first article appeared online days before it appeared in print. “A significant amount of our digital subscribers visit our mobile and desktop sites in the morning, during the workweek, so publishing then was the target,” Goodridge said in a Times follow-up piece to the original series. “The same thought process was behind printing the articles in the Sunday edition.”
Pugh said that access to the database that powered their story was the major online benefit. “Readers could check our work and challenge any of our assertions by exploring the data used to build the underpinnings of the story. Again, it was critically important to use to provide links to every bit of data that our findings relied on.”
Doug Pardue, a projects reporter for the Charleston paper, noted that the online version was divided into seven parts (“mainly because of the way sidebars were presented”) while the print version ran in five.
Much like Netflix does with its television series, Pugh said the Post and Courier published its entire “Till Death Do Us Part” series at once instead of in installments. “We put the project online so that readers from across the state would have the opportunity to engage with the piece before the weekend,” he said. “The print series ran from Wednesday through Sunday, but it was all online that Tuesday night. We’ve followed a very similar model with the projects we’ve done since.”
Planning social media from the beginning
Often times, social media strategy only happens after a piece is finished. In the case of the Times’ nail salon series, Goodridge said, “We got everyone together in room a lot earlier in the process before the first draft was even final. We put together a video trailer specifically for Facebook in which we had subtitles underneath the interpreters and journals that helped do the reporting. We had a lot of people working on this and it really went smoothly because we figured out expectations and goals very, very early on.”
Once the piece was published, Goodridge said their social media strategy included having people write Tweets in Korean, the primary language spoken by manicurists in New York City.
Pugh said in Charleston, “We didn’t do a lot of traditional marketing for ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ However, we did a lot of promotion on social media with a sort of trailer video that was shared in the days leading up to the project. We created a hashtag for Twitter (#tilldeath) and pushed out various stats, facts and findings throughout the week the project launched.”
Generating record traffic
“It was a gigantic traffic number,” Luo said of the nail salon expose. “It obliterated our previous standards for what the kind of audience for investigative stories. And the headline of the first installment, ‘The Price of Nice Nails,’ trended worldwide on Twitter, which we believe was the first time that a New York Times headline has done that.”
Why did this piece resonate more than, say, their series about prison brutality? “It’s a topic that resonates with so many people. This was really tapping into a lot people’s daily life,” Luo said.
Noted Goodridge, “If you don’t get a manicure, you’ve walked past a manicure place or you know someone who’s gotten a manicure. It’s a very intimate ritual in terms of you’re giving your hand over to someone else. And it’s also, when you think about it, very much ‘The Tale of Two Cities,’ the Have and Have-nots and they’re meeting at a table.”
The Brandon Sun’s Goerzen added, “We have definitely seen an increase in online traffic the more we do these kinds of long-form features. One concern we have is that parts of our readership area may not have great Internet connection speeds. It’s a problem local to us. So we have to figure out how we make it faster on mobile and Internet to get as many returning readers as possible. It’s something we continue to work on with each new product.”
While the Post and Courier’s “Till Death Do Us Part” series won a Pulitzer, it “didn’t experience any noticeable spikes” in digital hits or print sales, according to Pugh.
The impact of these kinds of investigative pieces goes far beyond trending on Twitter: The Times’ scathing revelations about the exploitation and poor working conditions in the city’s nail salons resulted in a number of crackdowns and new laws, not just in New York, but also in Connecticut and New Jersey.
“There was unprecedented government change,” Luo said. “A couple of days after the first piece posted, Gov. Cuomo issued a bunch of emergency regulations to crack down on exploitation in the industry. The de Blasio administration ordered some investigations. The state started requiring that salons start posting a worker’s bill of rights. The state legislature passed a law that made permanent a bunch of these things. It made running an unlicensed salon a misdemeanor offense, and then they created a multi-departmental task force to investigate nail salons.”
The Post and Courier’s eye-opening piece on domestic violence helped pass landmark legislature. “Groups that work closely with domestic violence victims have lauded the series,” Pugh said. “Several reforms in the criminal justice system were undertaken almost immediately, and South Carolina passed a landmark domestic violence reform bill on the day we (accepted) the Public Service gold medal.”
But what about advertising?
Getting advertisers to support hot-button topics isn’t always easy. Glen Parker, sales and marketing director for the Brandon Sun, told E&P, “We struggled with how to best monetize our ‘Breaking Faith’ series. In the end, it was felt that native-style advertising suited this product best, and as such placed a banner style ad in the story itself.”
He added, “It is a work in progress as we continue to look at placement and the quantity of ads. We need to determine how many impressions we can offer before we migrate to a CPM model, so in the meantime we sold it as a flat rate sponsorship type of advertising. Our intent was and remains to pitch the story to a company or organization that may tie in well.”
Parker shared one particularly savvy ad placement: “Our story on a deceased hoarder revealed there was no will and illustrated the challenges faced by survivors, so we sold the sponsorship to a local law office.”
Although all the outlets we spoke with did not try to find sponsorship for their long-form pieces, Goerzen said, “I believe these kinds of features are sellable, mainly because of increased reader traffic. As our product has improved, so has our ongoing readership for these specific pieces. There is definitely an untapped potential there.”
Pugh says emphatically of his series on domestic violence, “We did not ‘sell it.’ There isn’t an ad placement anywhere in the package. While I wouldn’t rule out ever involving advertisers in major news projects, most aren’t the best place for our advertising customers to get their message out.
The power of long-form
Why should newspapers continue to produce this kind of journalism in an era when outlets are continuing to fold?
“Number one, it’s part of the mission of newspapers,” said Luo. “This is about holding people accountable and exposing injustice and shining a light in dark places. There is an accountability function that newspapers in this day and age need to take seriously.”
He argued that undertaking such time-consuming pieces also makes sense from a numbers perspective. “As this series showed, people are interested in quality journalism and long-form journalism. Even if in an age of metrics and counting views and clicks, people eat this stuff up. Some of our most-trafficked stories are these big investigative long-form projects…It’s not just traffic we’re looking for. We’re looking for readers to spend a lot of time on our stories and to come back again and again. It’s these kind of stories that lead to that.
“Whatever the economic conditions, long-form has the ability to engage readers, especially those who really want to dig down into a subject. With the industry’s economy evolving, obviously newspapers—and news media generally—have to be willing to change with the times. I’d like to believe that this changing dynamic won’t negate the need for really strong journalism, whatever the format.”
Goerzen continued, “As a journalist, I think that these kinds of stories need to be told.”
In October, the Sun published another long-form piece called “A Brother’s Secret” about a hoarder whose secret was only revealed after his death (bit.ly/1kCUbXY).
“It was researched and written by an intern student who we had hired on for the summer, and I think she did an admirable job,” Goerzen said.
Pugh summed up simply why newspapers need to keep creating investigate articles such as their award-winning series: “Because it’s our job. If you give up on public service and watchdog journalism, you shut your doors and go home. As the old journalism adage goes, our job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Too often, you see media organizations that are more interested in comforting the comfortable. Fortunately, I think the trends we saw in the teeth of the last recessions are starting to reverse. I see more and more news organizations investing in this kind of work so I’m hopeful for the future of watchdog journalism.”